Cllr Kevin Davis is the Leader of the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames.
The General Election exposed a real problem for the party in that we no longer appeared to believe in very much. Understandably, the last decade has seen us struggle as a party to define our future as we wash from a Liberal Conservative agenda to Mayism. In these circumstances Conservatives also need to be careful because in light of the EU referendum there is a danger that the Government (and this would have applied to any Government) will be painted as solely about Brexit.
This narrative has risks. Whilst we are getting on with “Brexit means Brexit” we also need to ensure we are renewing our beliefs and narrative to change the UK so that post-Brexit we are fit to deliver, not just trade with the world, but public services for the people who live here. We need to ensure that the quality of life for us all is maintained.
Where should our focus be? I hope we can all agree individuals should know best how to run their own lives and should have the freedom and liberties, within the law, to do as we will. Free will is not a new concept but it needs to be at the heart of the philosophy of why we are Conservatives. But how does free will translate into a modern vision for the state. To create an environment where free will can be exercised needs our party to embrace a new power structure that does more to share power. We need to look at two important policy decisions that would shape a Conservative philosophy that supports individuals; devolution and Integration.
The Government needs to devolve more. Local Government has proved that real savings can be made through decisions being closer to the people they affect. People feel more empowered to control their lives if decisions about them are being taken with them. Effectively we need a new settlement of the boundaries between the role of central Government and other agencies of the state.
My view is that central Government is pretty poor at delivering many things because it prefers a simple one size fits all solution to problems that are not resolved by that philosophy. We should redefine what Westminster is about and it should be the big national issues; law-making, defence, infrastructure, security, foreign affairs, border control. Everything else should be devolved to regional (where it exists) or more likely Local Government.
You will notice I did not mention health or education in that list of national responsibilities. I believe we have to come to a decision on the future direction of these services. Scotland controls its own school system and yet in England and Wales education is becoming ever more centralised to Whitehall. Our Ministers need to make a decision as to whether local government is part of the education system or not as the current position of “responsibility without power or money” is no longer sustainable.
On health there are even greater decisions to be made. Health is hopelessly centralised and becoming ever more centralised as every two years a new five year plan fails to deliver genuine outcomes without it exponentially requiring additional resources. Our obsession with it being labelled a ‘National’ health service – when the only national aspect about it is that it is nationally free at the point of delivery – is now holding back the delivery of a system that needs to be more tailored to individual needs.
I know a lot more about the health needs of my own borough than NHS England ever will. It is time to devolve health to local authorities and merge the CCGs with local government. As I have frequently said on public platforms, when the NHS was created in 1946 it created two significant structures: hospitals that reported to the Secretary of State and were managed by a board (including Local Government leaders); and local health services, including dental, maternity pharmacies and GPs became part of a Local Health Authority which was substantially run by the Councils. Dare I say that in 1946 they understood the need to create a health service that meets local needs not national outputs?
When we interact with banks or online retailers we are frustrated by the lack of service and the lack of integration. So it is with public services. There is intense frustration amongst the public at the manner in which public services are delivered. John Lewis, Amazon and Google have all made immense strides in the way in which they focus on the customer and use data analytics to understand future demand. Government in all forms has not done enough to create simple, accessible services at a time when the public want it. We make public services difficult to access and frustrating to engage with and this leads to anger with the manner in which public services are delivered.
Sometimes, we appear to care less about the people we are delivering the service to and more about the process and structure of the service. Thatcher once made the famous comment about there being ‘no such things as society’. The left, for their own inconvenience, failed to complete that narrative which was “…no government can do anything except through people…”. That is as true today as it was then. People know best and we as Conservatives should be doing more to free people from the paternalistic nature of the state and give them power to shape their lives.
In my view we need to create a “single public service” and Local Government has a pivotal role to play in delivering that single point of access. We need to move away from the notion that centralisation saves money and delivers better services. There is no evidence that it does and in reality what we get is universal provision not tailored to local needs; inefficient and ineffective. Local Government is democratically accountable, no other local public service is.
Why can we not have a single phone number and front door for the job centre, police council, health, housing, welfare, bin collections etc. A single service could better use data to predict the future but also more efficiently manage the needs of the individual. We are starting to bring these services together in our Borough but without central Government giving clear direction or mandate that work is slow and difficult.
We can create partnerships and joint working but in reality we need a dramatic cultural change in behaviour and this can only be achieved through local integration and merger with the local authority becoming the single public service provider.
Our party needs a vision for a post Brexit Britain. A socialist state wants to remove the power of the individual, a Conservative state should be looking to support the individual in exercising free will. Understanding that individual and creating user focused services that are locally delivered should be the future for any Government in the 21st century and something the Conservative Party should embrace.